- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Virginia House and Senate approved their respective amendments to the current biennial budget Thursday, eliminating the proposed Medicaid expansion included in Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposed framework and providing for other items such as pay increases for state employees and teachers.

The House passed its amendments on an 81-18 vote, and the Senate approved its changes 38-0.

“Families and businesses across the commonwealth set priorities and make difficult decisions every day to balance their checkbooks,” said House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican. “They expect the same of us in Richmond, and I think the House of Delegates has done just that.”

A small group of lawmakers ultimately will be appointed to work out differences between the two versions of the budget that runs through June 30, 2016.

“Today, we unanimously approved a budget that puts Virginia’s fiscal house in order without raising taxes,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment, James City Republican.

Both the House and the Senate once again rejected Mr. McAuliffe’s proposal to expand Medicaid in the state for up to 400,000 Virginians under the Affordable Care Act, a provision made optional for the states by the U.S. Supreme Court when it upheld the bulk of the so-called Obamacare law in 2012.

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Mr. McAuliffe and Democrats in the legislature have said the funds that the federal government has pledged for the program will provide care for the uninsured and boost the state’s economy. Republicans have said they do not want Virginia to expand what they call a failing in Obamacare, and are skeptical that the federal government can keep up its end of the funding bargain in the long run.

Instead, the House budget puts $125 million toward providing seriously mentally ill patients with psychiatric and prescription drug services, doubling operational funding for free clinics in the state and creating new treatment teams and crisis intervention centers for behavioral health services.

The Senate version had supported about $92 million included in Mr. McAuliffe’s spending plan for a program to provide limited medical benefits and comprehensive behavioral health benefits for the seriously mentally ill.

But Democrats said it should have gone further, and protested after Mr. Norment moved to cut off debate on the issue Thursday.

“By cutting off debate, by not allowing discussion on funding the most important issue that this General Assembly will face, we have turned our backs — you have turned your backs — on 400,000 Virginians,” said state Sen. A. Donald McEachin of Henrico, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Mr. Norment pointed to last year, when the legislature went through a monthslong standoff over Medicaid and the budget was careening toward a possible government shutdown until state Sen. Phillip Puckett, Tazewell Democrat, abruptly resigned his seat and tipped the balance of Senate control to the Republicans, 20-19.

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“If in fact anybody in this body felt that this budget was so repugnant because it did not include Medicaid expansion and they did not have the opportunity to express their opinions on it, then they should have stood up and voted against the budget,” Mr. Norment said.

Mr. McEachin later said in a statement that while not perfect, the budget includes items Democrats are happy to support, such as state employee and teacher pay raises.

The House also set aside nearly $100 million for the state’s rainy day fund and axed $42.5 million of debt and about $10 million in fees Mr. McAuliffe had proposed in his own budget amendments. It also provided almost $150 million to give pay raises for state employees and police, teachers and college faculty.

Democrats, however, said they should have provided more funding for schools and health care.

“We can and should do much better,” said House Minority Leader David Toscano, Charlottesville Democrat.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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